Earlier this year Act No 37 of 2013: Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act, 2013 (the DNA Act), came into operation.
This groundbreaking legislation means all arrestees as well as offenders convicted of Schedule 8 offences* will have their DNA taken and their profile entered into a database, allowing for simpler cross-referencing in police investigations.
Marie Claire chatted to Vanessa Lynch,, Deputy Chairperson of the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board and founder of the DNA Project, an organisation which campaigns for legislation and greater awareness around the critical value of DNA in solving crimes, to find out what the act means for South African women.
MC: What does the DNA Act mean for South Africans?
Vanessa Lynch: It means accountability! Too many criminals get away with murder. The DNA profiles obtained from convicted offenders and arrestees as well as from samples collected from crime scenes, will be entered onto the National Forensic DNA database for the purposes of comparative searching. In this way, the DNA database will provide valuable criminal intelligence to the police as it has the ability to identify the real perpetrator of the crime by comparing the suspect’s DNA profile to the DNA profile found on a crime scene thereby creating accountability. Given the number of repeat offenders in South Africa, there is a strong possibility that the person who committed the crime being investigated was convicted of a previous crime and already has their DNA profile on the National DNA Database.
MC: And what does the Act mean for women who are the victims of sexual violence?
VL: The chances of finding biological evidence after a violent crime, especially rape, are very high – there will be many sources of DNA found on the crime scene, which in the case of rape is in fact the body of the victim. Blood, saliva, semen, tissue under the victim’s nails are all examples of the types of evidence collected after a rape. The DNA profiles collected after a rape are then entered onto a database and compared against the convicted and arrestees profiles and if a suspect has been arrested then against that profile too. Even if the first search does not match a known offender in the database it may match other profiles collected from other rapes, thereby linking seemingly unrelated cases and revealing that a serial rapist has been identified. Rapists tend to be serial criminals which is why it is accepted worldwide that when it comes to fighting back against serial rapists there is nothing better at protecting young girls and women from rape, than DNA databases.
MC: So why have we not been doing it here in South Africa?
VL: Because we didn’t have the laws to do so — now that we do it will give us the power to fight back.
MC: What should we do if we enter a crime scene or are in contact with someone who has recently been a victim of a crime to ensure the DNA remains intact?
VL: When a crime scene is not disturbed, forensic evidence has the power to determine exactly what happened and who committed the crime. Disturb the crime scene, and you may lose that opportunity forever. Never disturb a crime scene. DNA convicts!
MC: What can a rape victim do immediately after the assault to preserve the DNA?
VL: It is common for the victim to want to leave her underwear at the scene of the crime. This is natural as she has been violated. But it is extremely important for her to put her underwear back on – this will prevent semen (containing DNA) from draining away. For more on what to do after a rape has occurred, head here.
*Schedule 8 offences: murder, culpable homicide, rape, compelled rape, sexual assault, any sexual offence against a child or a person who is mentally disabled, treason, sedition, public violence, human trafficking, robbery, kidnapping, child stealing, arson